Brian Koppelman & David Levien

Brian Koppelman (@BrianKoppelman) and David Levien(@DavidLevien) joined James Altucher (@JAltucher) to talk about the creative process, power lunches, and making Billions (their new Showtime show).

Not until I found myself taking notes did I realize how much I enjoyed Koppelman. He’s movies are good, but it’s his podcasts that I really like. He’s talked with Altucher twice before (here and here) but has also done some great interviews of his own like this one with Seth Godin and this one with Amy Schumer.

These notes will aim to answer: how do you write a great television show? Koppelman and Levien are on to promote their new show and talk about the creative process, so it makes sense that we approach it from that angle. Remember though, the point of the notes is never just literal. This isn’t about just making a great television show. It’s about making anything.

How you write a great television show is just a proxy for how you make a great anything.

Amanda Palmer wrote that we’re all creators of one kind or another. Your creation is similar to Koppelman’s and Levien’s in more ways than you know.

Ready?

1- Partner up.

Koppelman and Levien have been writing partners for a long time, and have worked together on Rounders, Ocean’s 13, and The Illusionist. Koppelman says that the partnership pays off when they’re writing and need to switch parts or challenge each other. Someone will be stuck on something, they’ll switch, and the problem gets worked.

This happened while writing Billions. One episode script came in that wasn’t as good as the duo hoped, and they had to punch it up at the last minute. The work wasn’t easy, but there’s a thrill in doing it with others. Other smart people also suggest a partner:

Philip Tetlock found that good forecasters were even better in groups.

Seymour Schulich wrote, “the key to a successful partnership is mutual veto power. If you cannot agree on a major proposition, you don’t do it.”

Charlie Munger said, “I hardly know anybody who’s done very well in life in terms of cognition that doesn’t have somebody trusted to talk to.”

Peter Thiel said, “a lot of these companies aren’t solo efforts of a god-like person that does everything.”

It’s easier not to go it alone – and you’ll do better work.

Once you find someone to work with, you both need to build career capital.

2- Build career capital.

“Career capital” comes from the Cal Newport book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and is the idea that rare and valuable jobs require rare and valuable skills.

Koppelman and Levien have the career capital to create a show like Billions. They’ve put in the time and effort to have the money and experience that allowed them to write the show. Koppelman notes that they’ve worked with Paul Giamatti on The Illusionist in 2006. If they didn’t do good work then, would Giamatti work with them now? That’s one unit of career capital.

This model for career capital is everywhere. B.J. Novak worked with Bob Saget and “stunk” at stand-up for 18 months before getting hired for The Office. He earned career capital. Casey Neistat made movies and tv shows before vlogging. He earned career capital.

Newport writes that once you get career capital you can spend it on career parts you want. More/less travel. Flexible hours. Location. Koppelman and Levien used their capital to write a TV show for Showtime.

If career capital is something you want, I’ve got good news. It only takes two things. Time and effort.

3- Start early because it takes time.

It takes time to create something, so you may as well start now.  Levien says that they started working on Billions in 2013 (which was only possible because of the years of career capital they built before that). It’s been three years of writing, filming, and – now – promoting and they still don’t know if more than one season will be made.

As the Tom Petty song goes, “the wait is the hardest part.”

“It feels brutal when you’re toiling away in obscurity,” David Levien said in his first interview with Altucher. Amy Schumer looked around and wondered why her friends were getting the good offers and she wasn’t. (James Corden had this exact same experience.)

Phil Rosenthal worked odd jobs around New York City before producuing Everybody Loves Raymond. Gary Vaynerchuk uses the metaphor jab, jab, jab, right hook to explain that it takes time. Give, give, give and then ask, explains Vaynerchuk.

Things take time, and you can’t rush that. Charlie Munger was once asked, “how can I become like you, except faster.” You can’t Munger replied. Instead you need to “slug it out.”

As you start this process, start to “write more than words.”

4- Write more than words.

“The struggle in the writing room, is getting people not to write just words.” – Garry Shandling.

“These are not just jokes.” – Steve Carell to B.J. Novak.

Consistently doing good work requires deep understanding. “(The story should) communicate the themes in every way,” Levien says about the different parts you see on screen.  

Altucher says he saw this when he was on the set. He noticed that the director was shooting a car scene over and over again and then it clicked. The director wanted the car to come out of the parking lot a certain way because the person driving it would do that. Ditto for how he shot wide or tight.  

Novak was surprised when Carell said, “these are just jokes.” “Yeah,” Novak told Tim Ferriss, “that’s what do, we write jokes.” Only later did he get it. It wasn’t just the jokes. It was more than that.

Stephen King addresses this (vis a vis authentic dialogue) in On Writing:

“The Legion of Decency might not like the word shit, and you might not like it much, either, but sometimes you’re just stuck with it – no kid ever ran to his mother and said that his little sister just defecated in the tub.”

That’s more than words. It’s the stuff below the surface.

There’s a great part (25:30) of the podcast where Koppelman and Levien tell Altucher about a dinner with a billionaire. They pick a restaurant and the guy changes it to his favorite place at the last minute. The place is pricy. Then they order wine, and it gets really pricey. Their dinner bill is over $2,000. “This was a guy smart enough not to do anything on accident,” Levien says. Koppelman adds, “for many of these people each exchange has a winner and a loser… most of us don’t think of winning a dinner.”

Their interviewee needed to “win dinner.” He felt (they speculate) that because he was giving access, he needed to get something in return, and it needed to be good.

This person, Koppelman adds, isn’t “bad” or “good.” They’re a person. They contain multitudes.

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Koppelman says, look at someone like Mark Cuban or Marcus Lemonis. Those guys are rich and take over businesses, but we don’t see them as “bad” – why? That’s the question Koppelman and Levien want to unearth.

Ideally as you write, “you want the people leaning left and go right,” Koppelman says. B.J. Novak said this too, that his goal is to have the punchline right in front of you the whole time.

To do good work you have to understand more than just the work. You have to know the why and how. The psychology of a person and macroeconomics of the economy.

If you can build valuable career capital by doing good work over a long period of time then you have an option about options.

5- If you can, keep your options.

Levien and Koppelman have career capital (#2), that means they can have optionality. For Billions they wrote the script on spec. They had two options.

  • Someone could buy it and make the pilot. or
  • No one would buy it.

In the interview the duo note that if they had even more career capital, they could have had actors attached to the script and then they could have a third option:

  • Someone could buy it and make an entire season.

This spectrum, (maybe, one episode, one season) is important to Koppelman. There’s the financial compensation and there’s the I made this, I said something compensation. “The work felt important and satisfying,” Levien explains.

It reminded me of what Marc Maron told Judd Apatow,  quoted in, Sick in the Head:

“When you see a movie that Sean Penn directed, you realize he’s not fucking around. It’s like listening to a Nirvana record or something. This is not a job. They have something to say. And in comedy, the people that we like the most, when they score they have something to say that’s important to them. And to me, that’s what I’m always looking for.”

If you have optionality in your career then you can have the financial and personal rewards.

But you don’t always get this option to say what you want to say. You have to work for some options.

Chris Dixon maintains optionality with prorata rights. Scott Adams keeps optionality with his friends. Ryan Holiday keeps optionality by not signing a book deal with a publishers. If you can, keeping your options open is good advice.

There’s one final step to make a great show.

6- Work (really) hard, and pray.

As with anything else, for Billions to succeed Levien and Koppelman need some luck. Altucher says the show is good, and Koppelman and Levien are proud of it, but luck matters.

Mellody Hobson was lucky with her purchase of Madison Square Garden. Cliff Asness never rules out the role of luck. Kevin O’Leary said, “life is very serendipitous.” 

That’s all it takes.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter. Want to catch up on the posts, The Waiter’s Pad: Volume 6 is available for purchase here. You can also donate a few bucks here. Also, get in touch if you want to work together. I’m looking for some creative partners.

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Michael Covel

Michael Covel (@Covel) joined Barry Ritholtz (@Ritholtz) to talk about trading, trending, and Thailand. Okay, not just Thailand,but it starts with ‘T’ and I’m a simple writer.

Covel – and Ritholtz – fall into the category of “good talkers” and I listen to at least part of all of their podcasts. Get them together and you get two solid hours of conversation.

This podcast wasn’t as into the weeds I know about but provided lots of superficial anecdotes about things I don’t know like the experiences of working in Japan, what it was like to see economic ideas change, and how capital is like Gap t-shirts.

One final personal note, Covel challenges my ideas on his podcast. Whether it’s something I don’t understand or something I’m not interested in – but I try to listen anyway. One of the ways to use Twitter for good is to bust your biases. That’s something true for podcasts as well.

Ready?

Greats are made, not born.

Covel was influenenced by Richard Dennis(wiki) and the Turtle traders. The story goes, and Covel says he has no reason to doubt this, that Dennis and fellow trader William Eckhardt saw Trading Spaces (Eddie Murphy). Eckhardt said that could never happen. Dennis said it could, and he’d prove it. A bet was made.

Dennis recruited a group of – mostly average – applicants how to trade on a trend-following strategy that he created. This group of ‘Turtles’ turned out to be widely successful.

The application is true with regards to the podcast itself. Covel made himself into a great trader, writer, and podcaster. Ritholtz admits this too, that radio didn’t come naturally to him and that there was a learning curve. He’s gotten pretty good at it.

This is true for so many people, especially comedians.

Comedians are – sometimes sadly – not very good at anything. A lot of the art from people like Phil Rosenthal or Judd Apatow comes from places of pain or darkness.

Even people like Amy Schumer or  B.J. Novak weren’t born as comedians.

In his interview with Rithotz, Ken Fisher noted that even though his dad was a great writer, he wasn’t.

Ritholtz compliments Fisher’s work and says, “you’ve obviously inherited your dad’s writing skills.”

“Not true,” replies Fisher, “because if I had inherited them they would have come to me very naturally, but I worked hard to learn how to write.”

Except in rare, physical domains like sports, you can be good (or great) with some work.

Jack Canfield cautioned Tim Ferriss about pegging “being great” on only one thing. He tells the story of a family friend who wanted to be in the NBA. Of course, the guy wasn’t good enough to play professional basketball, so he took another route. He worked to get in the front office. He’s in the NBA, just in a different form than he first imagined.

It’s trend-following, not trend predicting.

As a simpleton (n00b), I didn’t really know what “trend-following” was. Covel set me straight when he said:

“If you’re a trend following trader you don’t have a mindset or prediction where any particular market is going to go. So when it starts to move, you’re just following the crowd.”

Later in the interview he adds, “nothing can be predicted.”

I was thankful to hear this because predication is hard. Like, really, really, really hard. It seems to me that Covel (trend-following) champions non-prediction. This is paramount for complex systems (trading, ecosystems, a college classroom). There will be some outcome, but not any particular one. Mathematicians explain it regarding birthdays, so I will too.

Imagine you’re in a room with 25 other people. Mostly strangers, none who you know well. One of them is me, and I approach you with a bet.

“Would you wager $100 that two people in this room share a birthday?” I ask. Note, this is much easier on the internet because my poker face is terrible (and so is this bet).

“Hmm,” you think to yourself, “this seems like a good bet.” There are only 25 people in the room, and there are 365 days in a year. Chances are definitely against it. Right? “Sure,” you say, “I’ll take the bet.”

So you and I go around the room (with a paper plate) and write down birthdays until we get a match, and chances are that we will.

This birthdays bet (explained very well by John Allen Paulos in Innumeracy, and Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody) demonstrates the something will happen ethos that trend-following subscribes to. We can’t predict what birthday will match, only that one probably will. The math, very briefly, looks like this.

Trend-following lives in this same cul-de-sac of knowledge. There will be something that happens, and you can profit by acting when it does. (And now you have a bet for the next in-law family reunion)

Would you rather have a chance of 80% of yes or 20% of no?

Covel and Ritholtz touch a bit on Kahneman’s work on framing and loss aversion.

Look at the question above, it seems like they would be the same but Kahneman found that the responses people give are quite different.

If people are given a 40% chance on winning $100 or just to take $20, they’ll often favor the latter. The saying could go, $20 in hand is better than any psychology mumbo jumbo and rewards in the bush.

That’s well and good and unremarkable, except that people switch their choices around when the outcome is reversed. If people are given the chance to  a 40% chance on losing $100 or just to lose $20, they’ll often favor the former. People are risk seeking to avoid losses. This matters in trading because if you’re trying to get back to zero, psychology suggests you’ll take more risks.

Related to this is loss aversion, which Richard Thaler explains beatutifully with a pyramid analogy. Also in that post is how Josh Brown creates win-win situations from down markets.

The prostate test test.

Covel says that he and Ritholtz are at the age for getting a prostate test, but should think twice about it. The side effects may be higher than advertised and the payoffs lower. (Note above we just mentioned our tendency to seek risks – have the test and side effects – to avoid a loss).

Covel says that reading Gerd Gigerenzer has changed his view on this. Gigerenzer has been on this blog before. When Scott Galloway spoke with Rithotz he outlined his five aspects of great companies. His model is simple and we noted that that’s good because we don’t want models that fit too well. In Gut Feelings Gigerenzer writes, “In an uncertain world, a complex strategy can fail exactly because it explains too much in hindsight.” That could be part of Cove’s apprehension of prostate exams. The other part is bad math, which Covel also got from Gigerenzer.

Let’s explain.

Pretend that 14% of a population has a disease, and a screening tool exists that is 98% effective. If we have 1,000 people, how many will be correctly diagnosed? Much like our birthday bet, things are not as they first appear.

Let’s do the easy math first. If 14% of 1,000 people are sick, then we have a chart that looks like this:

Has disease Does not have disease
Total people: 1,000 140 860

Not so hard, and if we had a test with perfect prediction, then that would be the end of it. But our test is only 98% accurate.

Of our 140 sick people, we will correctly identify 98% of them, 137. Our chart gets updated.

Has disease (140) Does not have disease (860)
Tested positive 137 (98% of 140)
Tested negative 3

Then we do the same to the ‘does not have disease’ group.

Of our 860 not sick people, we will correctly identify 98% of them, 843.

Has disease (140) Does not have disease (860)
Tested positive 137 (98% of 140) 17
Tested negative 3 843 (98% of 860)

 

We see then that 20 (3+17) of our original 1,000 people will get the wrong diagnosis – 5% of the general population.

Now if you thought this was a bit murky math, you aren’t alone. Doctors miss this too.

Successful people have systems, and follow the rules.

“This is not a day to day guessing game,” Covel says. There’s not single point in the interview where I noted the emphasis on systems, but by the end it was clear. Covel is a systems advocate. When Dennis taught people, he taught them a system.

When Covel speaks about trend-following he explains it as a system with rules:

1- What’s the portfolio?

2- What will force you in?

3- How much will you be in for?

4- When will you exit for a loss?

5- When will you exit for a win?

Those questions are easy in hindsight, but hard in application. In part because it takes time and temperament.

Systems don’t have to be complicated either. Ritholtz says “never ask a room full of people what they want for dinner.” That’s a system too. Like a basic computer code or logic statement; if more than 8 people, then do not ask what people want for dinner.

Systems speak to us. Warren Buffett aims to avoid the “institutional imperative” at Berkshire. Scott Adams compares people to moist robots and has rules for that system.

Systems are good, but systems won’t be perfect.

Covel’s rule #4 (When will you exit for a loss?) is easy to state, but hard to act on. Ritholtz says that when he was a trader it was “okay to be wrong, but not okay to stay wrong.” You can’t reach and try to get back to even because you’ll take more risks getting there.

Some problems are too hard for any system. In his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz notes that for hard problems there’s no prescription.

“The problem with these books (about business) is that they attempt to provide a recipe for challenges that have no recipes. There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations.”

The best systems are ones where the big mistakes are eliminated (as best they can be, but never absolutely) and wiggle room is given for the small choices.

Books

Beside Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Covel suggests Blue Ocean Strategy, The Fountainhead, Linchpin, The Wisdom of Insecurity, and The Success Equation.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter. Want to catch up on the posts, The Waiter’s Pad: Volume 6 is available here. You can also donate a few bucks here. If you want to work together, please get in touch.

Mellody Hobson

Mellody Hobson joined Ben Horowitz (@BHorowitz) on the a16z podcast to talk about business. Talk may not be a strong enough word. Lecture? Preach? Command?

Whatever it was, it was good. Her ideas, examples, and experiences are almost too good. These notes will not be good. I mean, I’ll do my best to write them, but the audio is so very good.

Have you ever been in a new city with a walkable area, and don’t know where to eat? Most of the places will have their menu outside and you can at least glance at it, guess if you want to eat there, and eventually pick something. That’s what these notes will be. In the non-stop online buffet, this is a menu advocating (begging) that you listen to Hobson and Horowitz.

One quick note, Horowitz is the author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things, a book I was surprised I liked. The book warranted its own post where I looked at: lead bullets vs. silver bullets, complicated vs. complex systems, and when to act.

Okay, ready for Hobson?

1- Keep your optionality.

Hobson is the president of Ariel Investments and tells Horowitz they recently bought Madison Square Garden (MSG).* That sounds like a good idea.

But sounds good isn’t good enough.

Hobson explains that the investment in MSG was based on a confluence of factors; the “Dolan discount,” the NBA lockout, a retro-fit over budget, and upcoming TV contract negotiations. Hobson and Ariel were looking at a mess – and messes are good places to find optionality.

“Everything that can go wrong, has gone wrong,” Hobson explained. “You could not rebuild MSG if you tried…so we said, there’s a barrier to entry here that’s pretty significant.”

Hobson concluded that an investment in MSG was one with limited downside, and massive upside. She also got lucky, as Jeremy Lin joined soon after the purchase and “Linsanity” began.

Optionality is a fulcrum that many successful people use. Charlie Munger creates investments around it ( Chris Dixon does too). Judd Apatow interviewed Jerry Seinfeld who waited to start his career until he found optionality. If you can find yourself in situations with a big upside, you’ve found yourself in a very good place.

2- Of time & money – only one matters.

Hobson explains that she was hired by John Rogers who told her, “people undervalue time and over value money.”

Two thousand years ago, the stoic philosopher Seneca wrote much the same thing: “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”

But we don’t get this. Charlie Munger might have given a hint why. “Well, practically everybody overweighs the stuff that can be numbered, because it yields to the statistical techniques they’re taught in academia, and doesn’t mix in the hard-to-measure stuff that may be more important.”

We know how to add dollars and think that’s the only equation we need. It’s not.

“The word ‘billionaire,’” wrote Seymour Schulich (who is one, no sour grapes), “is a very crude and inaccurate measure of how well I have played the game of life.”

Sometimes you don’t even need money. Kevin Kelly, Nicholas Megalis, and Tim O’Reilly all solved problems better with less money.

3- Get to second level thinking by reframing.

Second level thinking is to think not just about the actions or reactions but the reactions to the reactions. Both Ken Fisher and Richard Thaler explain it in terms of the “beauty contest.” Tyler Cowen displayed the thinking in regards to Harvard allowing more students.

Hobson says that her team has a lot of discussions, and the key to good discussion is to talk without going “toe to toe.” How does she do that? How does Hobson create discussions that get to the second level without getting petty or personal?

– “Would we do this, if we were private?”

What would happen if the price of a supply was cut in half?

In the first instance Hobson reframes the problem by redefining who they are. In the second she throws out a wild scenario to see how someone responds. Each of them gets to second level thinking by reframing the question.

Chris Dixon reframes startups as a maze. Dan Coyle reframes exercise repetitions as meditative. Stephen Dubner reframes shopping experiences so he’s marketed to less. Reframing is rethinking.

4- Dive deep.

If you’re going to do something well, Hobson observes, you need to have a deep knowledge of it. Her husband George Lucas, Hobson says, has a thick binder in his office for each fictional planet in Star Wars. It includes the name, people, customs, environment, and more. It’s deep.

To succeed you have to go deep.

Alex Blumberg was deep in radio before his startup Mark Cuban memorized user manuals before he sold anything. Gary Vaynerchuk knows the ins and outs of every social network. Dick Yuengling moved kegs throughout the factor to learn the ins and outs. You have to go deep to learn the most valuable parts. Hobson does this too.

She explains this using the company Bristow Helicopters.  Bristow is – among other things – an oil rig taxi service. Horowitz jumps to the conclusion that the stock was down because of low oil prices. You’re right, says Hobson (probably smiling), but the company has little to do with oil prices. The stock trades in tandem with oil, but the fundamentals are different. 

Hobson knows that Bristow is worth less on paper than liquidation value. bump That’s either Benjamin Graham rolling over in his grave or Charlie Munger slapping his head (because he missed this).

Hobson knows helicopters depreciate differently than other machinery and Bristow has other revenue streams.

Hobson has dived deep.

5- Observations > (are greater than) predictions.

When Hobson’s group purchased MSG, things didn’t look good, but only from the outside. “There may be a perspective of ‘they’re not winning,’” Hobson says, “but we can look at data like season ticket holders buying every year.”

Later in the interview Hobson applies the same thinking to hiring. If someone applies to work at Ariel Investments they can’t be seen as “job hoppers.” Those people won’t stay, Hobson tells Borowitz.

Sometimes it’s better to look at the history of something rather than think about the future. Point #4 of my Charlie Munger post gave examples. The past is often helpful because the future is very hard (maybe impossible) to predict.

Bill Simmons (former writer) – is a solid thinker and noted that the past isn’t all we want to look at.  You may not want a great pro athlete in the last year of his career over a much younger one, Simmons articulated in his trade value columns, and those were well before Kobe Bryant’s retirement tour.

6- The default is ‘no.’

Hobson says that “we like less is more,” and describes a colleague’s process this way, “she assumes she doesn’t want to own anything. Everything is a rejection.”

If no is your default then the burden of proof is on ‘yes.’

Michael Lombardi explained they evaluate football players the same way. “Scouting’s not about finding players,” Lombardi says, “Scouting is about eliminating players.”

Even though this switch is small, one tiny hurdle matters. Cliff Asness, Jason Zweig, Tadas Viskanta and Ken Fisher, all say that overtrading is a sure way to diminish returns. If you want to trade, make ‘no’ your default choice.

‘No’ doesn’t need to be limited to financial choices. We can apply this idea to our own lives. Dessert? ‘No.’ Watch TV? ‘No.’ Yell at the kids? ‘No.’

For whatever behavior you don’t want, try to make no your default response.

7- Skin in the game.

“We are looking for leaders who are aligned with the shareholder. If we see CEO’s that don’t own any stock that’s just not good. If we see CEO’s that pay themselves too much, that’s not good.” – Mellody Hobson

Without skin the game you’re playing with Monopoly money. Philip Tetlock demonstrated this in his book Superforecasting. Chris Dixon said that the a16z interests are in line with the entrepreneurs. Seth Godin compares it to being thirsty or not. If you aren’t motivated to do it, you won’t.  Tim Ferriss said that once he started playing poker with his own money the dynamics changed.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

Want to catch up on the posts? The Waiter’s Pad: Volume 6 is available here. You can also donate a few bucks here.

* After multiple listens, I still wasn’t sure what exactly Ariel Investments bought when they bought MSG. Sorry for the lack of clarification.

Amy Schumer

Amy Schumer (@AmySchumer) joined Brian Koppelman (@BrianKoppelman) on The Moment Podcast to talk about life as a female comedian. The interview was from January 2015 (no typo) and I missed it dropped. Luckily the episode was sent out again and I took some notes.

Before we begin, I have to note a problem on this blog. There’s too few women represented. In Antifragile Nassim Taleb notes that without the word “antifragile’ we miss half of – what Taleb calls “the interesting part” – life. My problem is bigger than that. I’m missing the female perspective.

I don’t feel compelled to write about women for gender reasons, but FOMO (fear of missing out). They know secrets to a good life. I read Ray Dalio’s Principles and was blown away. That’s a guy I have almost nothing in common with, but he taught me a lot.

I felt the same way reading Will Schwab’s The End of Your Life Book Club. That book made me a better person. Ditto for Man’s Search for Meaning and Finite and Infinite Games. Female interviews are like a category of books that I have yet to find out about.

I have written up some notes from women: Amanda Palmer, Carol Leifer, Marni Kinry and Kristen Carney, Gretchen Rubin, and Maria Popova is the complete list of female only posts. That’s five out of 120.

I’ll do a better job in 2016, starting now.

This post – Amy Schumer – like a good movie, has narrative arc.

Our hero’s constraints help her in unexpected ways. She enters a battle, and loses. She trains to get better (while getting her butt kicked). She has a moment of inspiration (with instrumental swell of music, is John Williams available?). She defeats the boss, wins the prize, makes a hit. She makes friends. She gives advice. She starts it all over.

Ready?

Constraints.

Schumer is asked a lot about her looks, and she says she’s “pretty enough.” That’s good news. Constraints are part of the creative process, and sometimes they’re a straight up advantage. Being “pretty enough” helped Schumer get on stage, but it wasn’t enough to keep her there. It was a start. Anything can be a constraint you can use.

Kevin Kelly said that a lack of money helped him be more creative. Tim O’Reilly said the same thing about his business.

“Limitations can expand rather than shrink the creative flow,” wrote Amanda Palmer.

In her book, You’re Never Weird on the Internet, Felicia Day writes that being different helped, a lot:

“I’m glad I didn’t know better than to like math and science and fantasy and video games because my life would be WAY different without all that stuff.”

Even Brian Koppelman had to move to a new medium (stand-up) to have constraints that focused his creativity. Step one of our hero’s journey, you can’t start out as royalty.

When you start, you’ll stink.

Koppelman recalls watching Last Comic Standing (2007) and seeing Schumer on the show. They had both been at the same club a year before and he says to his wife, “this girl is a genius and she sucked so hard just last year.” Everybody stinks at the start.

Austin Kleon articulated why this is so hard. You start doing something – writing, stand-up, marriage – and the only people you’ve seen do that thing are good. That’s why you’ve seen them. You are not good. You are bad.

“There’s a big gap, Kleon says, “when you’re starting out between what you love and what you’re producing.”

Step two of the hero’s journey, step out the door and realize it’s a big scary world.

The grind.

Schumer says that she’s never been jealous of other comedians, but has wondered, why them and not me? She tells Koppelman that she quickly snaps out of it and remembers she has to do the work. It’s time to work, and grind, and hustle.

In Do The Work, Steven Pressfield gives advice on this part:

“Ignorance and arrogance are the artist and entrepreneur’s indispensable allies. She must be clueless enough to have no idea how difficult her enterprise is going to be—and cocky enough to believe she can pull it off anyway. How do we achieve this state of mind? By staying stupid. By not allowing ourselves to think. A child has no trouble believing the unbelievable, nor does the genius or the madman. It’s only you and I, with our big brains and our tiny hearts, who doubt and overthink and hesitate. Don’t think. Act.”

You  have to get to work and not realize how crazy your idea might be. Because it is crazy. Alex Blumberg, Robert Kurson, and Koppelman (“the line between being an artist and being delussional is very thin.”) all explicitly warn people not to examine how hard things will be. Schumer got to work.

She “barked” to get ten minutes on stage. That is, she stood outside, no matter the weather, for two to three hours at a time and yelled at people to come in. Only then did she get a chance on stage.

She worked more, she got better. She toured with Last Comic Standing. “That was like boot camp,” Schumer told Judd Apatow. She toured more. She did slightly bigger and bigger rooms. She persisted, and then she arrived, at the waiting place. Step three is a step back.

The waiting place.

The Waiting Place - By Dr. Seuss

At some point you’ll get to the place where it just doesn’t seem like things will happen. Koppelman’s writing partner David Levien said, “it seems brutal when you’re toiling away in obscurity.”

Brian Koppelman added, “you have to cover that difficult terrain yourself.”

Step four, our hero is stuck, can’t go on, can’t measure up. It won’t happen.

The spark.

If you listen closely, and pay attention, something in the waiting place will spark. Schumer shared two of these instances.

The first was a train ride. Schumer was on a train after a set. It hadn’t gone well. She wondered what she was doing with her life. It was late. Her boyfriend was about to dump her. Things weren’t going well.

It was then that a lady asked if Schumer had “heard the good news.” The women of course was asking Schumer to come to her church. “No, I’m Jewish,” Schumer said, but there was something else in that exchange.

Schumer went home. Told a friend. Wrote a joke. It was good. She had something.

That something is all you need. It’s a foothold on the mountain. Louis C.K. said that this step is the start of a set. You get one joke, that’s your closer. Then you get another joke, that’s your opener. You piecemeal things together until you have an act.

Schumer’s second spark was during Last Comic Standing. Schumer won a challenge and another contestant said, “you don’t deserve it.” “That broke my heart,” Schumer recalls.

But later when the episode aired, she saw the other comics. “I knocked it out of the park, I absolutely did deserve it,” she tells Koppelman.

That spark that gets you out of the waiting place can take a long time coming.

It took Andy Weir years to write The Martian after several failed attempts. Jim Luceno was a carpenter during the first years of his writing career before he believed he could make enough money writing. Jack Canfield says to build failing five times into your plan for success. It takes persistence. Koppelman knows.

“I’m sure there are days when you think the haters are right and you’re not good enough. Days you know it’d be easier to quit. But then you’ll never know what would have happened if you gave it one more push.” – Brian Koppelman

Step five, there might be a chance.

As you ascend, have friends.

There are so many people who have partners that help them on their way. Schumer is one of them. She says that her friends are always asking each other if they “have a think about this.” It’s good to have other people who support you around you. People to take comfort with in the waiting place and that can help you in the grind.

Peter Thiel said, “a lot of these companies aren’t solo efforst of a god-like person that does everything.”

Jay Jay French went through ten iterations of the band before he met Dee Snyder and formed Twisted Sister.

Adam Carolla found Jimmy Kimmel and stuck with him because, “we’re funny together.”

Many hands make light work goes the saying, good friends make the work more enjoyable might be a good second part.

Step six, I can do this – no, we can do this.

We did it. We’re famous. Now, get back to work.

Koppelman asks, “was fame a conscious part of the the thing when you were doing this.”

“No,” Schumer says – and it never is.

James Manos said that when they were writing The Sopranos, they never thought about great it might be. B.J. Novak said that the office was never expected to be a great show. James Corden said neither was Gavin and Stacey.

“My goals have been very small,” Schumer says,  “things just right in front of me.”

Even when you “make it” you realize there’s no it. There’s always a higher mountain, and the climb begins again.

Schumer – or anyone – is back where they started. Doing the work, one small bit at a time. The hecklers never die, the doubts never leave, the constraints don’t seem like blessing.

Step seven, repeat as necessary.

Caveat emptor (buyer beware).

It might never happen. To think this sequence is prescriptive would be wrong, it’s descriptive only. In the Charlie Munger/Tren Griffin post we noted how valuable it was to describe the stock market as a person, rather than machine. Mechanistic systems are computers, and even not entirely.

I was reminded of all this because at the end of 2015 I saw a Brian Regan stand-up show. Then for Christmas a friend gave me one of his old CDs. Regan has been at it a long time. Way longer than Schumer. If the path of “successful stand-up comedian” was linear, prescribed, or a checklist, Regan would be a household name. Schumer is, he’s not.

There is something we can do. We can take the advice of astronaut Chris Hadfield and enjoy the process. Hadfield wrote:

“It’s probably not going to happen, but I should do things that keep me moving in the right direction just in case – and I should be sure those things interest me, so that whatever happens I’m happy.”

You need to embark on the journey and be happy with the journey. Schumer admits a bit of this to Koppelman, saying that on Last Comic Standing she was the only one who wanted to hang out after.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter. Want to catch up on the posts, The Waiter’s Pad: Volume 6 is available here. You can also donate a few bucks here.

A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Tren Griffin and Charlie Munger.

Tren Griffin has written a book, Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor. In it, Griffin breaks down what makes Munger – Warren Buffett’s partner at Berkshire Hathaway – Munger. 

It’s by no means complete, but it’s a good start. Griffin’s bibliography alone could fill the reading queue for a year, and Munger’s original writings go well beyond that. But the book serves a purpose, it gives us a place to start. Griffin has distilled and organized Munger’s ideas so anyone (even me!) can understand and learn from them.

Griffin’s been on the blog before, when he spoke on the a16z podcast about the book.

Two quick notes before we jump in. The first is for you, dear reader, to keep your guard up. Jason Zweig emphasized the importance of skeptical reading and this post is especially suspect. We’re at risk for Generation Loss. That is, a copy of a copy will always lose some of the original data.

In our case, Benjamin Graham influenced Munger who was written about by Griffin who was read by me and is now consumed by you.

Graham > Munger > Griffin > Me > You

That’s enough copies of copies that something in Graham’s original message will be lost. What I hope is that something will be added in its place.

Second, this “A Dozen Things I’ve Learned” style post is a tribute to Griffin who writes them at his blog, 25iq. If this post is bad, it’s because of me, not the premise. Griffin’s posts are some of the best writing I read each week.

Okay, ready?

1- Don’t try to be Charlie Munger. “No one can ever be Charlie Munger,” Griffin writes, “just like no one can be Warren Buffett.” So what’s the point?

The point, writes Griffin, “is to consider whether Munger, like his idol Benjamin Franklin may have some qualities, attributes, systems, or approaches to life that we might want to emulate, even in part.”

That’s the point of this website. You can’t folow the same book writing path as Andy Weir, but you could model the persistence. You can’t become a tech mogul like Mark Cuban, but you can be inspired by his attitude. You can’t make movies like Judd Apatow but you can emulate his humility.

Find something that successful people do and fold it into who you are.

2- Work hard at simple things. Investing, says Buffett, is, “simple, but not easy.” Griffin quotes Munger as saying, “take a simple idea and take it seriously.” To succeed you don’t need to solve huge problems like Elon Musk, you can work hard at smaller things.

Penn Jillette said that his only trick is working hard than the audience expects he would.

When James Corden worked with Meryl Streep on Into The Woods, he said she was great to work with because she took her work very seriously, but not her life.

  1. Writing is a form of thinking. “Part of the benefit of creating a checklist is the process of writing down your ideas. I have always loved the point Buffett made about the importance of making the effort to actually put your ideas in writing. In Buffett’s view, if you cannot write it down, you have not thought it through.” – Tren Griffin

How well can I write this is a proxy for how well do I understand it. Michael Mauboussin, Barry Ritholtz and Maria Popova explicitly mention that writing is a form of thinking.

Comedians support this idea too. Phil Rosenthal said that comedy is a form of deep understanding. Only if you understand something deeply do you understand what part of it is funny. It’s the idea behind Jason Zweig’s book, The Devil’s Financial Dictionary.

  1. Focus on the stones of history rather than the clouds of the future. Griffin does a wonderful job explaining how Munger and Buffett make predictions – they look to the past. Griffin writes, emphasis mine:

“Effective Graham value investors are like great detectives. They are constantly looking for bottom-up clues about what happened in the past.”

“What Munger looks for is a business that has a significant track record of generating high, sustained, and consistent financial returns.”

“By sticking to investing activities that are easy, avoiding questions that are hard, and making decisions based on data that actually exists now, the Graham value investor greatly increases his or her probability of success.”

This is what makes Griffin’s book great. In three pages he’s refined one of Munger’s big conclusions. Like a master chef who studies the recipe for Bolognese and we get to eat at the restaurant.

Munger doesn’t try to predict the future because the future is complex/chaotic. Instead, Munger looks for companies that have succeeded in dealing with the future as it came.

Chaos theory doesn’t have a large role in the book, but it underlies Munger’s thinking. That is, there are too many variable to perfectly model a future. Rather than looking at what might happen, Munger looks at what has happened. This gives him an idea about how a company will react in the future – whatever may come.

  1. Everything is a system and systems are alive. Systems are alive and we should listen to them. This idea is throughout the book. From the macro chaos theory to the way Munger manages Berkshire. Griffin quotes Buffett, who warns against, “institutional imperative.”

“As if governed by Newton’s First Law of Motion, an institution will resist any change in its current direction; just as work expands to fill available time, corporate projects or acquisitions will materialize to soak up available funds…”

That’s Buffett talking about his own company. Even he can’t control the “institutional system.” Griffin writes – and this thrilled me to no end – “the culture at Berkshire has been created by Buffett and Munger so as to reject the institutional imperative like a foreign body.”

Griffin compares the “Berkshire culture system”  to the immune system!

Everything is a system and systems are alive. They move to natural states. If we think of them this way we can better understand the world we live in – #6 will help with that too.  

  1. Anthropomorphize to reframe something. “The Graham value investor believes Mr. Market is unpredictably bipolar in the short term; for that reason, when the market is depressed, it will sometimes sell you an asset at a bargain price.” – Tren Griffin

Note what Graham compared the stock market to. Not a machine. Not an equation. Not a computer. A person. That’s a key point, because as we noted above, “Mr. Market” can be entirely unpredictable (like that one friend where nothing he does surprises us).

Rename the stock market as bi-polar Mr. Market and we see things in a new light. This is incredibly helpful.

Chris Dixon reframes startups as a maze. Dan Coyle reframes exercise repititions as meditative. Stephen Dubner reframes himself in situations to think differently. Dubner recalls being at a “New England yard sale.” The skies were blue, the air was clean, and the stuff was laid out on tables. This stuff looks great, Dubner thought to himself, but what if this stuff was in Pier One instead? He reframed how he viewed the trinkets and decided he didn’t in fact need one.

  1. Measure what matters, but not more. “Practically everybody overweighs the stuff that can be numbered, because it yields to the statistical techniques they’re taught in academia, and doesn’t mix in hard-to-measure stuff that may be more important.” – Charlie Munger

Did you have a nice holiday? How do you know? Was it because you drove (walked?) 500 miles? Was it how much you spent on gifts? Pounds of mashed potatoes consumed?

Of course not, and this quote from Munger magnifies the end of the spectrum we need to think about. Remember that systems don’t always talk in numbers. But numbers are simple and we are cognitive misers. It’s so easy to just look at the numbers.

Numbers may be all you need, Munger says, but maybe not.

  1. Turn problems into games. Munger says that his multidisciplinary approach has made life “more fun.” Griffin writes, “looking for models that can reveal and explain mistakes so one can accumulate worldly wisdom is actually lots of fun. It is like a puzzle to be solved.”

Remember, Chris Dixon reframed entrepreneurship to be like a maze. In Principles Ray Dalio writes about the fun of solving problems too. In Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal examines how games help us learn better. Tyler Cowen sees games as very helpful in learning.

Turning problems into games is a reframing technique anyone can use.

  1. Know the fool at the poker table. The axiom goes; if you can’t spot the fool at the poker table, it’s you. The stock market is a huge poker table with some of the best players and biggest fools.

Griffin writes, “investing is less than a zero-sum game due to fees, costs, and expenses relative to the market. If you are buying an investment, by definition someone else is selling. Either the buyer or the seller is making a mistake.”

Your job is to figure out which side you’re on – and that’s really hard.

When Cliff Asness spoke with Tyler Cowen, even he didn’t know who was on the other side of his trades. It could a pension fund manager who needs to dial down a risk figure, Asness explained, but he didn’t know. Asness has a Ph.D. from Chicago and runs AQR Capital Management and he’s not sure who the fool is.

Luckily for fools like me, Munger has another piece of advice. If you find a problem that’s too hard to solve (e.g. who’s the fool at the poker table), decide that it’s too hard, and move on to something else.

  1. Be okay with the wrong side of maybe. You need to be disciplined and clear headed writes Griffin. How does Munger suggest we do that? “The right way to think is the way (Richard) Zeckhauser plays bridge,” Munger said.

Okay. So how is that? (emphasis mine)

“Bridge requires a continual effort to assess probabilities in at best marginally knowable situations, and players need to make hundreds of decisions in a single session, often balancing expected gains and losses. But players must also continually make peace with good decisions that lead to bad outcomes, both one’s own decisions and those of a partner. Just this peacemaking skill is required if one is to invest wisely in an unknowable world.” – Richard Zeckhauser.

Philip Tetlock calls this “the wrong side of maybe,” in his book Superforecating.  Tetlock explains that sometimes long odds come up. You can’t look at a forecast that says 20% chance of rain as wrong if it rains that day. The forecast said it could rain. What you need to do, Tetlock writes, is to evaluate long term predictions that people put numbers to.

Bill Simmons knows this when he bets on sports (and it’s why he’s a superforecaster). He knows bad bounces happen. That’s the understanding that Munger advocates for investors.

  1. Be studios. Munger is described as “a book with legs sticking out.” He reads a lot. But then again, almost everyone who succeeds is in a state of constant learning.

Rather than a list of links, read this Reddit reply shared by Taylor Pearson:

  1. There is no passion without knowledge, and vise versa. I used to think “follow your passion” was good advice. Then bad. Now I don’t know.

What I do know is that passion alone isn’t enough. Passion needs to enter a positive feedback cycle where it turns into skills and knowledge and then reinvests in passion for more skills and knowledge.

Griffin writes, “One trick related to passion is that you are not likely to be passionate about something you do not understand…the more you know about some topics, the more passionate you will get.”

When I taught at a local college I surveyed students on two questions to start the semester; what do you like doing and what are you not good at doing. Their answers never overlapped.

The things they were bad at they never enjoyed.

Then we listed those skills.  We improved those skills as the semester went on and voila, by the end of the semester they were better at them and enjoyed them more.

Ramit Sethi put it this way, “when you get good at something, you get passionate.”

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter. If you want to catch up on the blog posts, you can buy Volume 6 here.

Successful Ways to Use Twitter

Twitter gets mentioned here a lot, and it needed its own post. Like any tool, knowing how to use it well makes the work we’re doing that much easier.

So far we’ve seen 4 ways to use Twitter well.

(This post will be updated as needed)

Connect with colleagues.

The first way to use Twitter well is to be connect and collaborated with colleagues. Austin Kleon advocates for creating your own “scenius.” John August uses Twitter to announce writing sprints. Nicholas Megalis talked about the value of connecting with other people.

Create a filter.

Scott Adams notes how reticular activation helps him.That is, you can use Twitter to filter inspiration. See if Gary Vaynerchuk does it for you.

Chris Dixon uses Twitter to create a his own news source. “Essentially I have two thousand of the smartest people in the world finding information for me and telling me what to read,” Dixon says.

Bust your biases.

You can use Twitter to get balanced conclusions. Jason Zweig, Tadas Viskanta, and Tren Griffin all suggested to generate conclusions from multiple perspectives. Twitter can be one where we gather those perspectives, but also test the ones we have. We can follow people we disagree with just to see how well we know our own arguments.

Connect with fans.

Amanda Palmer connects with her fans constantly. Casey Neistat uses it to get questions for his Q/A. Comedians like Judah Friedlander announce shows.

Thanks for reading, I (of course), am on Twitter @mikedariano.

Signals

A lot of successful people use signals to nudge them toward one action, thought, or idea compared to another. This idea has come up so often that it needed it’s own post.


 

Why do we need signals?

We need signals because we can only process so much information. Our attention is finite, our short-term memory limited (4-7 spots), and our resources constrainted.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman offered the first explanation I really understood.

“You make many small decisions as you drive your car, absorb some information as you read the newspaper, and conduct routine exchanges of pleasantries with as spouse or a colleague, all with little effort and no strain. Just like an easy stroll.”

Kahneman, like good authors, is setting us up. (A quick digression, both Penn Jillette and B.J. Novak said that an unnoticed setup is the key part to their craft)

Back to Kahneman, we understand this. A lot of what we do we don’t have to pay attention to, mostly because we are already filtering it out. It’s why Scott Adams leverages reticular activation.)

But when we get to hard problems things change. Back to Kahneman:

“It is normally easy and actually quite pleasant to walk and think at the same time, but at the extremes these activities appear to compete for the limited resources of System 2. You can confirm this claim by a simple experiment. While walking comfortably with a friend, ask him to compute 23 x 78 in his head and to do so immediately. He will almost certainly stop in his tracks.”

Aha! We have something.

Not only to we have limited bandwidth, but even a task as automatic as walking gets interrupted when we need to draw more. Fascinating.

Okay, let’s get past the academic cuteness.

Why does this matter to you and me?

The most successful people succeed because they quickly get rid of what’s not important. They focus their bandwidth on the most important task at hand.

Casey Neistat asks, “is this good for me and my technology company (Beme), and if the answer is no it gets a pass.” Neistat’s signal is the question, “does this help Beme?”

Richard Feynman got so tired of choosing a dessert, that he resolved to always order chocolate ice cream. That was his dessert filter.

Barry Ritholtz said that he looks at the prices of classic cars as a signal for bull and bear markets, or if people say “ugh” to his trading ideas.

Ramit Sethi and Taylor Pearson both construct interview questions that need answered in an exact way.

Stephen Dubner called this, “teaching your garden to weed itself,” and wrote an entire book chapter about it.

Some banks figured out how to filter out dangerous marijuana growers.

The most famous of the signals might come from Van Halen.

The story goes, that when Van Halen was touring they had the latest and greatest light and sound rigs. There was just one problem. Each venue had a different person set them up. The guy who set things up in New York wasn’t the same guy that did it in Charlotte. So, according to David Lee Roth, Van Halen introduced a wrinkle to their rider.

They said that among the other rock star accoutrements, they wanted a bowl of M&M candy with the brown ones removed. Some people looked at this as divas being divas. Au contraire mon ami. Roth said they did this to see how closely a promoter read the rider. If someone removed the brown M&M candy, they probably set up the equipment correctly.

Okay, I’m a believer. How do I do this?

First, shift your self perspective.  Scott Adams calls this the “moist robot theory.”

Some of you will liken the idea of reprogramming your brain to self-hypnosis, and that might feel creepy or unlikely to work. A better approach, as I mentioned, is to think of your body as a moist, programmable robot whose outputs depend on its inputs, not magic. Imagine you’re an engineer who is trying to find the user interface for your moist robot body so you can make some useful adjustments. It’s as if you had one menu choice labeled “Make Sleepy” and another labeled “Energize.” You can choose “Make Sleepy” simply by eating simple carbs.

Ah, so I can think of signals as a very basic programming language to use on myself.

If dessert does not include fruit, then do not eat.

If spouse yells, then do not yell back.

If this takes time, money, resources, beyond X, then do not engage.

The best way to start is just to start and know that it won’t be perfect. Barry Ritholtz admits he missed some investment opportunities. Ramit Sethi says that he didn’t hire some great people.

It won’t be perfect. Good signals are a trade off:

Good results + more time > Perfect results + less time.

 

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.